Dr. James Zogby Says Americans Should Listen to Arab Voices

Article excerpt

Amjad Atallah, co-director of the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation, invited Dr. James Zogby to talk about his new book, Arab Voices (available from the AET Book Club), on March 4. Atallah asked the founder and president of the Arab American Institute (AAI) if he could have predicted the wave of unrest sweeping the region. After decades of polling the Arab world with his brother John, listening to both leaders and common people, and writing Arab Voices, did Zogby have a sense for what was about to happen?

This is the most critical development in the region since the advent of colonialism, Zogby replied. "As significant as Tunisia was," he added, "Egypt is even more." What surprised everyone was that when attacks against demonstrators came, the protests got even larger. Zogby pointed out that, unlike other episodes of popular unrest in the region, the current revolutions and uprisings are not led by political elites or vanguard Islamists-these are popular movements, with a strong civic component.

The participants, male and female, are voicing largely non-ideological demands, he noted. People are demanding democracy, accountability and fair wages. Zogby cited memorable examples of unhappy workers he's met on his travels. He described an elevator operator in Egypt, a man who speaks three languages but who is stuck pushing buttons in an automatic elevator for a tiny salary. Or a taxi driver in Bahrain, a Shi'i, a citizen-not an expat-who comes from a large lower class and who can't move upward. Polls give the constants, Zogby emphasized, but they don't give the variables, which can be a surprise to all.

Dr. Zogby explained how ignorance toward the Arab world has pervaded American administrations. Eight years of the Bush administration had a "devastating impact," he said. Bush officials were not willing to listen to Arab grievances, but were eager to lecture Arab political leaders and intellectuals on the merits of democratic reform and gender equality. …